Ushuaia to the Falklands, the other British Isles.
It is in the early hours of the morning of 3rd February when the Silver Shadow cruises gently through the Beagle Channel. Sailing past the stunning Glacier Avenue of six extraordinary ice-smothered mountains. It is certainly unfortunate that all guests were sleeping peacefully in their suites,in pitch black darkness, as this majestic sight would have been a geological highlight of the voyage.
In 1832, as a young crew member, Charles Darwin sailed these waters on board the HMS Beagle, under Captain Fitzroy which gave the fjord its name. This was the first ship to sail the channel from east to west, around the southern coast of Tierra del Fuego north to reach the Strait of Magellan. Tierra del Fuego, “the land of fire” was named by the explorer Ferdinand Magellan in 1520 who witnessed numerous fires lit by the Selknam, the natives of this archipelago of islands,originally known as Karunka.
We arrive in Ushuaia, the most southerly town located Fin Del Mundo, the end of the world. This is a busy fishing port and gateway for expedition ships sailing south to explore the White Continent, Antarctica. It’s a quaint, historic frontier town, with a backdrop of high Andean peaks, formerly a Penal colony (visit the fascinating prison, preserved as a museum and art gallery and see the train at the end of the world, built by the convicts through the surrounding forested national park.)
Circumnavigating South America, it is not necessary to sail around the treacherous seas of the black rock, Cape Horn. We continue along the Beagle Channel to the south of Tierra del Fuego to reach the South Atlantic. Expecting wild waves and cool weather, we are pleasantly surprised to find extremely calm waters and two warm sunny days en route to the Falkland islands, the other British Isles at the other side of the world. While this is the end of their summer, it is sometimes too rough in the bay off Port Stanley to be able to anchor safely. We are indeed fortunate. While we are initially informed that the temperature may be in the region of 10 to 14 C, we come ashore on the tender boat at 10am (dressed in wind-proof trousers, hiking boots and hats) to be greeted by tropical-style sunshine. Thankfully we are wearing layers and soon strip down to T shirts and pack away our jackets.
Ken and I are particularly pleased to be able to step ashore in Port Stanley. In 2010, we were on the Grand Inaugural Voyage of the Silver Spirit, which circumnavigated South America from Fort Lauderdale from Florida to Los Angeles. On this cruise we also managed to visit the Falkland Islands and booked a shore excursion to Bluff Cove Lagoon, with its magnificent penguin colony. As well as the wonderful wildlife, what was most surprising and exhilarating about the trip was to visit the Sea Cabbage Cafe and the newly built Bluff Cove Museum.
We met ex-pat Brits, Hattie and Kevin Kilmartin, the owners of the 35,000 acre Bluff Cove farm (Perendale sheep and Belted Galloway cattle), who had the inspired idea to create the 3 hour Island adventure especially ideal for cruise passengers. It’s the most perfect excursion, combining wildlife – a rookery of Gentoo and King, (as well as seasonal Magellanic and Rockhopper) penguins, seal-lions, ducks, geese, and numerous sea-birds, local food, history, arts and culture.
As a travel writer.I entered this tiny, blue clapper board beach hut museum for a Tourism Award through the British Guild of Travel Writers which recognises important and inspiring new experiences for world travellers (arts, heritage, culture, transport, architecture, sports etc.). A long story cut short, out of dozens of entries, the Bluff Cove Museum was voted in 2nd place in the Global category as best new tourism venture, by the BGTW members (Awards dinner, November 2010).
And so here we were back again on the 15 mile drive to Bluff Cove. Now a very popular and successful shore excursion, there were two excursions for Silversea at 10 am and 11.30. The journey begins by mini bus for a short drive from the pier, past the army of workers clearing the land mine sites, to the start of the Farm Estate track, and then we climb aboard a 4×4 landrover (4 guests per vehicle), with a convoy of vehicles setting off for a fun, rock ‘ n rolling trip across the wild moorland to reach the Bluff Cove beach. As it’s a dry sunny day,, it’s a fairly smooth, muddy bog-free ride over the grassy terrain.
Our arrival coincides with the time when the cute Gentoo chicks are beginning to moult their fluffy down. It’s a beautiful sight to see the huge huddled groups of penguins, particularly the majestic, proud yellow necked Kings.
They appear quite oblivious to the few dozen visitors invading their habitat (markers show where we may stand outside the Rookery) as we snap away taking their portraits. It is seriously warm for early February (late summer) and while we have been taking off our cosy fleeces, several over-heated penguins, more used to a chilling wind, are taking a cooling dip in the sea and sunbathing on the sand.
Then it’s a short stroll over the grassy bank above the sea shore to the Sea Cabbage Cafe where a welcome cup of tea and an excellent selection of home-baking is being served. As well as sampling delicious carrot cake, the local speciality is freshly baked scones with diddle-dee (local berry) jam.
Down on the beach we see Hattie watching over Toby, the Kilmartin’s 7 year old son paddling and playing in the surf. What a fun reunion we have, here again after five years since we first came to Bluff Cove.
The Museum, with its iconic “Penguin paperback” logo on the side, has been developed with style and innovation: farm wool crafts, silky soft mauve and green tweed throws, Bluff Cove branded mugs and magnets, postcards and artwork. We also see the framed BGTW certificate, with other travel and tourism awards.
Around the walls, fascinating displays of photographs and documentation on Falkland Island culture and heritage, from archive maps, early exploration (Darwin arrived here on he Beagle), military artifacts and memorabilia from the 1982 Conflict to the 2013 Referendum when the around 98.5 % of islanders voted to stay as an official British outpost, to remain as part of the United Kingdom. This tiny beach-front cabin is not just about Falklands history, but presents a living, topical and contemporary overview of the life and culture of the islanders today.
Our driver of the 4×4 jeep for our journey back to Stanley in the afternoon is Amy, a 20-something girl who was brought up here with on her parents farm on the north side of the island. She and her siblings were taught how to drive at a young age as they had to be set off to get help in an emergency.
700.000 penguins, 600,000 sheep, 3,000 people. The other British Isles at the other side of the world in the South Atlantic. This is a landscape which at first glance may seem so bleak, barren but linger awhile, observe and breathe in that salty sea air down on Bluff Cove beach; Admire the beauty of this rare, raw, remote, untouched natural world.